Oh god, more grammar. – Every student ever.

“Hello, how are you? It’s so typical of me to talk about myself. I’m sorry.”

It would be fair to say that I was, until recently, a ‘context’ skeptic. It’s not that I didn’t see the value of establishing an overarching narrative or theme when teaching grammar or vocabulary or what-have-you. It’s just that I didn’t feel it was necessary. My worry has been that doing so will tend to encourage students to focus on that story or song or video clip or cluster of realia, perhaps at the expense of the target grammar or vocabulary. Or, if the learners do grok the objectives, then they may associate with the context of that lesson rather than seeing how it applies universally. Moreover, the way they will be expected to use it come assessment time will generally be devoid of context, even if there is some contextualization on the test – our listening assessment and writing assessment are complimentary topics, for instance – that context will almost never be the same one in which they studied the material.

What I’ve learned in ICELT, however, challenges my preconception about context. According to our instructors, establishing and staying within a context anchors the learners in a (hopefully) familiar frame of reference, allowing for the all-important activation of background schemata. Without such a framework, it can be difficult for the learners to understand the utility of the target language. As our tutor said, absent context, it’s all just random words and sentences. This is why coursebooks always have themes around which their vocabulary and grammar are centered. It is also why, perhaps, so many students buy texts like English Grammar in Use and never get more than a few pages into it. All those cloze exercises and transformations are devoid of any familiar meaning.

I still believe that there should be activities that provide more test-prep and universalized practice, but I am now more amenable to using context for my grammar and vocabulary lessons in the future. If only I’d come to that realization before I had my assessed observation.

A couple of weeks ago, I had 2nd teaching observation, the first one that would actually be assessed. The objective of the lesson was a notoriously difficult one, in my experience: infinitives of purpose, such that, so that, such…that, and so…that; an annoying cluster of grammar and functional language that only sort of go together. In the run up to the lesson, I spent a crazy amount of time on the lesson plan. Hours and hours. I wrote up stages, made materials, scraped the stages, and archived the materials. Why? I don’t know. It was not a pleasant experience, but it was an educational one, though mostly in hindsight.

Structurally, I opted for a PPP framework: presentation, practice, production. A solid choice, I felt; going for a task-based learning approach would have worked too, but it’s a style that I’m not as comfortable with, so not what I wanted to do for an assessed lesson. One of the things we’d studied in our ICELT course is the value of elicitation. Instead of just having the teacher show the learners the target grammar or vocabulary, it’s better to get the students to produce as much of it as possible and then nudge them in the right direction. Thus, I included a stage for elicitation of the target grammar.

But first, I wanted to do something a little fun and interesting. You know, lower those pesky affective filters. For the lead-in to the lesson, we listened to Adele’s Hello while students filled in the missing words in the lyrics on a worksheet I prepared. That stage of the lesson worked well, though there was a little technical glitch at the beginning of the lesson. I then used the lyrics to move into the first main grammar point, the infinitive of purpose.

Where I think I screwed up is in the next stage. The Adele song was a good, fun way to ease into the topic; unfortunately, I didn’t continue to use the song as we moved on to the next stages. Instead, I used a series of interesting but random pictures for elicitation of the other grammar structures – such that, so that, such…that, so…that – and unconnected sentences for a series of rewrite activities. The song should have been the context of the entire lesson. Had I started the hour off with some predictive activities and/or lead-in questions, then played the song and done the gap fill, then the target language presentation, and elicitation using elements from the song and the story the song presents, it would have been a far more cohesive, grounded lesson. Context, man.

The rewrite activities were another thing that was not as effective as they could have been, mainly because there were too many of them, and too frequent throughout the assessed part of the 2-block lesson. My thinking was that the students often do poorly on rewrites during the mid-term and final test, so the more practice the better, since the final was just a week away. My intentions were the best, but the lesson was not the better for them.

Does he ever stop talking?!

Another unfortunate part of my lesson was the amount of TTT: teacher talk time. When I was designing and redesigning my lesson plan, I thought I had minimized TTT. In practice, though, I found that the class was actually much more teacher-centric than I realized. In retrospect, some of the activities that I scraped, such as a running dictation, would have centered the class much more on student-student interaction. The main culprit was the PowerPoint I used. I know some teachers are totally against PPTs. I think that they are useful, it used correctly. In this case, I used it for highlighting text from the Adele song, for paper-reduction, for showing photos, and similar things. The PPT itself wasn’t bad; there was just too many stages that utilized it. Have a variety of different kinds of activities would have mitigated this issue.

In the end, the lesson was fine; I passed the assessment. Though the students learned the grammar points pretty well, I felt disappointed that the lesson didn’t live up to my expectations. Thankfully, though, I was able to recognize the mistakes I made in it and will be better able to avoid them in the future. “At least I can say that I’ve tried.”